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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Altair Rising

According to the ever-useful nasaspaceflight.com website, NASA is close to naming the new Exploration fleet (much like how F-15s and F/A-22s are called Eagles and Raptors): Ares I and Ares V for the new Crew Launch Vehicle and Cargo Heavy Lifter, respectively; Artemis for the lunar descent module, and Altair for the Crew Exploration Vehicles. The only name that I think could use some improvement is Altair. Its fine as far as it goes, but the name of a star doesn't really fit with the mythological theme of the others and previous programs like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Plus, as a coworker pointed out, Altair is also the name of the ship that always seems to explode before the Enterprise can get there. I guess I would have picked something slightly more mythology-related, like Pegasus (NASA's preferred name for the vehicle class that President Nixon personally named the Space Shuttle) or Valkyrie. Of course, I think that something a bit more evocative, like Intrepid (my personal favorite), would have been highly appropriate, too.
Another good idea would have been to have a contest for schoolchildren, like the one that got OV-105 named Endeavour (apparently beating out Calypso and Victoria). Still, I'm glad that we're finally getting decent names for these vehicles. It's really hard to get students excited about riding on something called a "Crew Exploration Vehicle" which is attached to a "Crew Launch Vehicle" and rendevous with a "Cargo Launch Vehicle".

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Where Has All The Pong Gone?

Pong was created as an electronic form of table-tennis back in 1972. (I can't believe electronic games are that old, but according to Wikipedia, the first electronic games date back to the late 1950's.) Then came Atari's Breakout (1976), Super Breakout (1978), Megaball, and 3 decades of clones, sequels, and shareware. If you're really into classic games you probably have every emulator and a extra bedroom full of old computers that you can turn on for a quick arcade game fix... OR, you can do it the easy way and get this free game, DX-Ball, which is a clone of Megaball. It's a very fun game that works instantly in XP, just download and play.

DX-Ball has bricks that do way more than just sit there -- some explode. Also, your paddle does way more than just sit there -- it can shoot back. Having a tough time getting that last brick? Don't worry, a lightning bolt will turn it into ether. DX-Ball also has an option for in-game music, which you can turn on by pressing F5. However, I don't recommend pressing F5 unless you actually like corny midi-style jazz-pop-elevator-muzak-wannabe noise. The game is a lot of fun and rarely frustrating. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of the 50 levels, you will have a very Myst-like experience when the game just ends without congratulating you or showing you a victory screen.

(Below:) Screenshot of DX-Ball's first level. The orange-glowy bricks will explode.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

To Adventures Bold

Well, I’m glad to see that the Star Trek license has been picked up by another developer. It wasn't looking good there for a while. For those of you who never heard, the last license holder was Activision, which paid something like $11 million for the license to all of the Star Trek properties and proceeded to produce a whole slate of lackluster Star Trek computer games in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Activision canceled its contract with Paramount in 2002 and then then sued Paramount because it had let Star Trek whither and die (I believe that the exact term was "marked decrease in quality"). In my opinion, this was one of the biggest computer entertainment news stories of 2004. It was an unprecedented case, because for the first and so far only time a licensee had sued a licenser simply because it was putting out a lame product. Make no mistake, Star Trek today is but a pale shadow of its former self. Enterprise is unwatchable—lame premise, lame characters, lame execution, lame title song (but AWESOME credit sequence! Small victories, I guess...) Ditto for Voyager. Deep Space Nine had its moments, but the last two movies were weak, and for that matter I'm not even the biggest fan of the last season of Next Generation. In any case, I remember thinking “Good for them!” when news of the lawsuit broke. However, the story really wasn’t covered that much in the gaming press—Computer Gaming World never even mentioned the story, and according to the indispensable Wikipedia, the case was quietly settled out of court late last year.

To be fair, most of Activision’s Star Trek games were lousy. The best of the bunch was easily Star Trek: Bridge Commander, a nearly flawless space-combat sim which was the game that Starfleet Academy should have been. The original Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force was almost as good as Bridge Commander-the only modern Trek game where you felt as if you were really exploring unknown places in the Star Trek universe, but it was too short. Star Trek: Armada was actually a pretty good game, too, but I’m dinging it because the Borg were seriously underpowered. They should have been like the Antarans in MOO II, but they were just slightly more powerful than the other factions. The rest of the games were tepid and uninspired (anyone remember Star Trek: Away Team? I didn’t think so.)

The problem with most of the Activision titles is that in an attempt to lure “mainstream” gamers, they had simply grafted situations and characters from Star Trek into generic game types in an uninspired and by-the-numbers sort of way. They were counting on the Star Trek cachet to overcome lazy design. The whole premise of Star Trek –the premise that has inspired billions of people --is the exploration and development of space for the betterment of all humanity. For the most part, the Star Trek computer games from the late 90s and early 2000s were basically mindless action games. This disconnect alienated the core audience, while the mainstream gamers were just put off by the stoooopid gameplay. When I play a Star Trek game, I want to "go boldly where none have gone before" — not shoot an improbable monster with an equally improbable handheld photon torpedo launcher, like in Elite Force 2. Boy, that game was a big disappointment.

To be a good Star Trek game, you have to have the creativity, awe, wonder, and generalized joie de vivre that Star Trek at its best displays in abundance. If you’re thinking “Man, that sounds like the perfect recipe for an adventure game…” you’d be completely right. The best Star Trek computer games have been adventure games: Interplay’s Star Trek:25th Anniversary (1992) and Star Trek: Judgment Rites (1994), and Spectrum HoloByte’s Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity (1995). These games were all enormously successful (in a way that none of the Activision games were) from both a creative and financial standpoints. The writing was excellent, capturing the feel of the series as well as the easy interaction between the characters. The plots were involved, making you feel as if you were leading a landing party to explore unknown worlds.

The aptly named 25th Anniversary was released in 1992 as part of Star Trek’s 25th Anniversary celebration, and really captured the spirit of The Original Series. Of course, you played the role of Captain James Kirk. The game was perfectly balanced between two components: Manuvering the Enterprise in space, including combat with Romulan, Klingon, and the Orion-like Elasi pirates, and the landing parties, which were straightforward adventure game elements. The game was divided into a clever episode structure: At the beginning of each episode, you were given assignments by Starfleet Command that you would have to complete, and Starfleet would assess your performance. The landing parties featured a slick interface that was hands-down just better than the competing Sierra interface. Everything about the game felt right, from the way the Enterprise handled in combat to the McCoy-Spock banter. Plus, unlike most adventure games, the puzzles didn’t seem forced. They always tied into the plot in a logical and cohesive fashion, and there was always at least two or three ways of completing a mission. There was also a wonderful bit of homage humor: Every episode featured numerous ways of killing the red-shirted security officer that accompanied your landing parties. However, if you killed too many, Starfleet would eventually give you a scolding…

Star Trek: Judgment Rites featured the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it philosophy of which I am so fond, keeping the interface and structure that worked so well in the first game, but including some evolutionary improvements over 25th Anniversary, such as the ability to skip the starship combat sequences and a strong plot that linked all of the missions together. It is justifiably considered a masterpiece today; its easily on my top 10 list and its definitely my favorite adventure game. A sequel (written by D. C. Fontana, no less!) was reportedly brought to a late beta stage (including recordings from all of the original cast, even the late DeForest Kelley) and canceled. That’s one of the great decisions which has led to Interplay going out of business…

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity was an amazing accomplishment. It featured the same starship combat-away mission setup as the Interplay games, (although the starship combat was less fun than in the Interplay titles, which is why its my second-favorite adventure game) all done in amazing SVGA graphics. It was also one of the first CD-ROM games to take advantage of the new medium, and featured excellent cutscenes as well as the incredible voice acting of the entire cast. Patrick Stewart’s script reportedly was over four inches thick! The plot was excellent and would have made a vastly better and more cinematic movie than any of the Next Generation movies that did get made. The best part was the relative freedom of choice the game offered. Example: on the show, Worf is always offering prudent suggestions that the crew ignores (which subsequently gets them into trouble). The best part about this game was that you could actually follow Worf's advice! Amazing. These games were all wildly successful because they gave the player a fun, balanced, and complete Star Trek experience, with equal doses of exploration, adventure, and strategy. I think that the success of these games can simply be attributed to the fact that you really did feel as if you were the Captain of the Enterprise.

Back to the point: The new games look visually appealing; there are a bunch of nice screenshots from Bethesda and a Q and A up at GameSpot. In the Q and A, the developers and production team are saying all of the right things. Unfortunately, apparently it is going to be (yet another) simulation of starship combat. I like starship combat as much as the next person, but it would be nice if they tried something more original and different. Two Starfleet Academy, four Starfleet Command, one Bridge Commander and a Dominion Wars later I think that particular dead horse has been well and truly flogged.

The single-player Star Trek game that I would love to see would be a Star Control 2-like top-to-bottom simulation of commanding a starship, including adventure, RPG, and space-combat sim elements. Call it a linear mix between Battlecruiser 3000 AD and Knights of the Old Republic. I feel that a deeper and more varied game that allows the player complete freedom of action is not only comletely possible using modern technology but would work really, really well as a game in its own right. Another idea that would be great to see is an updated Birth of the Federation-style strategy game that used elements from the entire series. Hopefully, if the new Bethesda game is good enough to generate strong sales they'll think a little more out of the box for the next one.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Game

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was adapted to a text-adventure game in 1984 by Infocom and Douglas Adams. A full Wikipedia entry is available about all things Hitchhiker's Guide.

You can download the DOS version or you can play the new online Flash version which has some graphics. If you are any kind of fan of Douglas Adams you have got to try this free game! If you get into difficulty, both versions have a hint guide (link is for the online version). I've tried both versions, and I tend to get stuck on the second puzzle unless I use the hint guide. It may be the most wacky puzzle ever in gaming history! Just what you'd expect from Douglas Adams! I also tried the new online version. The graphics are nice to look at, but fortunately they did not try to change the game at all in the new version. The new graphical item queue is a convienent way to see what items you have picked up. There is only one potential downside of the new online version, in order to save a game or restore a game you have to join h2g2, which is basically a Hitchhiker's Guide fansite. When you play this game, saved games are a must, because you're going to die a lot!

Starship Titanic is another game created by Douglas Adams. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to experience this game because I couldn't get it to work with XP. The game did a faulty install and then left me without an uninstall option. Once I finally got it to play, the movies didn't work. If anyone has any fixes, I'm interested.